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Public school reform
Rusted scissors, coins and other debris sit on the floor of an elementary school in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans, La. File Photo. Credit: AP Photo/Eric Gay

As we get closer to the 10th anniversary of Katrina, I get increasingly frustrated with the debates about reform and whether or not it’s working.

New Orleans must keep pushing for improvements to public education until it is America’s smartest city. We can achieve this goal if schools meet the desires and expectations of the families they serve. Reform is needed, but the animus and rebuttals against reformers sound like a defense of status quo. I believe our privilege creates a kind of selective amnesia to what is at stake.

As a co-author for The Data Center’s upcoming report on public education ten years after Katrina, I’ve been sifting through the muck of data and studies about how bad New Orleans education was before the storm and a few facts stick out.

Related: The graduation rates from every district in one map

New Orleans has been smarter on average than the country as a whole. According to analysis of Census and American Community Survey data performed by the New Orleans Data Center, 34 percent of her residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to the national average of 29 percent. Both numbers are up from 2000, but New Orleans beat out the country then. New Orleans has a greater percentage of people who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher than the national average. New Orleans’ smartness rises in spite of decades of neglect to the public educational system dominated by low-income black folk.

Low-income, black families have the most at stake in regards to the effectiveness of public schools. I just wish we remembered that.

You can begin to understand the kind of tiered education system we’ve had in the Crescent City when you disaggregate these numbers by race.

Thirty-five percent of white men hold a bachelor’s degree. That’s more than double the number of black men who hold B.A.’s, which is 17 percent.

The proportion of black men with college degrees is less the national average of our black peers. But the percentage of white men in New Orleans with a postsecondary degree such as bachelor’s, or more, is higher than national averages.

The same holds true for black women. While a higher percentage of black women, 19 percent, hold a bachelor’s degree or more, they trail their white women peers at 33 percent.

Black women in New Orleans have a lower share of college degrees than their national counterparts, and white women outperform their peers. Hispanic men and women get degrees at the same rate as black men and women, but Hispanic men and women do better than their national brothers and sisters.

Related: These New Orleans teachers keep kindergartners hot for learning all summer

The privilege of an education means that you’re oblivious to what it means not to have a good one.

The college degree is the gateway to the middle class. A class of people simply can’t compete economically, politically or socially without being able to look eye-to-eye – educationally speaking – with their equals. New Orleans is a majority black city. Consequently, we need a public system that will uplift a people to their peers.

The middle class opted out of the public sector, and the least powerful are on an educational island. Eighty-seven percent of the children in New Orleans public schools are African-American. In the 2004–05 academic year, 77 percent of New Orleans students were part of the free and reduced lunch program, which was how schools primarily measured poverty.

The term “economically disadvantaged” is the designation currently used, but it entails the percentage of students eligible for SNAP, TANF or Medicaid. At the start of the 2014 academic year, 84 percent of students were economically disadvantaged. Economically disadvantaged students make up 92 percent of enrollment at Recovery School District charter schools.

For the educated, New Orleans is the most wonderful city on the planet. But our enjoyment is a function of a peculiar distance from the poor.

Related: Full court press for Mississippi third-graders in summer school has disappointing results

I along with thousands of others, consume copious amounts music, food and conversations that are served to me by people who deserve more than our talk. We can debate how to change all day. I’m an academic; I’m built to do that. However, to defend the past and status quo is to accept inequality. If you consider yourself a progressive, you can’t be the “party of no.”

Let’s be clear. Reform also needs reforming if we want New Orleans to be America’s smartest city. Reformers are so defensive about critiques that they too are shielding the new status quo in New Orleans. Growth and improvement on test scores are encouraging, but we can’t be satisfied with what reform has supposedly done. Poor folk can’t afford our complacency – the rent is too damn high.

Low-income, black families have the most at stake in regards to the effectiveness of public schools. I just wish we remembered that.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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